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Violet de Cristoforo

Sept. 3, 1917 - Oct. 3, 2007

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Violet de Cristoforo's haiku poetry reflected the time that she and her family spent in U.S. internment camps during World War II. Bethesda, Maryland, 2007, photograph by Alan Govenar
Violet de Cristoforo, Bethesda, Maryland, 2007, photograph by Alan Govenar
Violet de Cristoforo, Bethesda, Maryland, 2007, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Violet de Cristoforo, Bethesda, Maryland, 2007, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Violet de Cristoforo, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Violet de Cristoforo was born Kazue Yamane in Ninole, Hawaii. After receiving her primary education in Japan, she attended high school in Fresno, California. Upon graduation in 1934, she married Shigaru Matsuda, with whom she ran a Japanese language bookstore. She joined a school of haiku and became well known for her poetry in the kaiko, or free-style, form. In 1939, she took her two children for an extended stay with her parents in Hiroshima, Japan, where she studied classical Japanese culture.

In February 1942, de Cristoforo was expecting her third child and recovering from surgery to remove a tumor when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the military to remove Japanese Americans on the West Coast to internment camps. Soon the family was living in 110-degree heat in a tarpaper shack at the Fresno Assembly Center, a former horse track. There, she gave birth over an orange crate. Two weeks later, she and her sickly baby were sent by train to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. From there, they were sent to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in Northern California with other Japanese Americans who had refused to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. Because he had joined a committee to investigate food shortages at the camp, her husband was sent to a camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. De Cristoforo remained at Tule Lake, where her mother-in-law died of cancer and her father-in-law went mad with grief.

Amid these horrific surroundings, de Cristoforo wrote haiku on scraps of paper. “Throughout, haiku helped hold me together. It was an escape, and it let me express my feelings,” she told the Salinas Californian in 1993.

De Cristoforo left Tule Lake in 1946, intending to join her husband in Japan, where they intended to repatriate. She found that he had remarried. She took the train and walked two days in the mountains to reach Hiroshima, where she found her mother, who had been severely burned in the atomic bombing months before.

After marrying Wildfred de Cristoforo, an American Army officer stationed in Japan, de Cristoforo returned to the United States in 1956. They lived in Monterey, California, where she worked for the McGraw-Hill educational publishing company. With his encouragement, she published her work.

De Cristoforo died two weeks after accepting the National Heritage Fellowship. She was to have read one of her poems but was too ill to do so. Instead, it was read by former Congressman and U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, another survivor of World War II internment.

The poem she chose was apparently written when prisoners in the Tule Lake stockade were on a hunger strike:

My heart perceives nothing
Day to day
Summer at its peak in highland

Bibliography
Associated Press. “Violet de Cristoforo, known for haikus on Japanese-American internment camps in US, dies” (October 5, 2007).
De Cristoforo, Violet Kazue. A victim of the Japanese evacuation and resettlement study (JERS). Monterey, California, 1987.
De Cristoforo, Violet Kazue. May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow; An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku. Compiled, translated and prefaced by Violet (Kazue) de Cristoforo. (Sun and Moon Press, Los Angeles, California, 1996.)
De Cristoforo, Violet Kazue. Poetic Reflections of the Tule Lake Interment Camp, 1944. (Communicart, Santa Clara, California, 1987.)
Stein, Julie. “Haiku from the Internment Camps: Violet Kazue de Cristoforo.” California Writer (February 26, 2006).
Woo, Elaine. “Violet de Cristoforo, 90; California haiku poet sent to WWII internment camps.” Los Angeles Times (October 9, 2007).

Watch

Violet de Cristoforo, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Kimiko de Cristoforo talks about her mother, Violet de Cristoforo and the traditions that she's carried on during her lifetime, interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 19, 2007

Kimiko de Cristoforo talks about mother Violet de Cristoforo and how she got started writing haiku, interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 19, 2007

Kimiko de Cristoforo reads an English translation of a haiku poem written by her mother, Violet de Cristoforo, interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 19, 2007